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Film Review: 'War for the Planet of the Apes

20th Century Fox's 'War for the Planet of the Apes' opens in theaters on July 14. (Image Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Review: The word “prequel” carries with it an ungodly amount of baggage. Thanks in no small part to George Lucas, any time that word has even been rumored to be floating around any one of cinema’s most treasured classics, the collective internal screams of moviegoers around the world are manifested through the sound of angry fingers slamming down on keyboards one character at a time as users flock to social media to unleash their outrage on an unsuspecting public. It seemed unpreventable; unavoidable. Then came 2011 and Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Backed by 20th Century Fox and with the assistance of Weta Digital (both of whom were fresh off the astronomical financial success of James Cameron’s “Avatar”), “Rise” debuted to critical praise and a respectable box office haul. The Matt Reeves-helmed sequel “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” upped the ante even further, earning even higher scores on review sites across the board and taking home almost a quarter of a billion dollars more than its predecessor. Now, the epic finale to the “Apes” trilogy is finally upon us, and director Matt Reeves has triumphed once again. “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a remarkably beautiful motion picture that revisits all of the beloved themes previously explored within the franchise and adds several layers of narrative complexity that culminate in one of the most poignant films of the decade. It's an unforgettable movie in which Reeves delivers a befitting conclusion to the origin of the “Planet of the Apes.”

“War for the Planet of the Apes” is a powerful exposé on the human condition told from the perspective of Caesar — the de facto leader of a super-intelligent ape colony — as he and the shrewdness he commands struggle to survive in the midst of an armed conflict with mankind that he did not ask for. Ravaged by internal division and lethal firefights with the remnants of the human race, the apes have retreated to a stronghold hidden in the forests of North America in hopes of rebuilding their families and charting a new path forward for future generations of the species. It’s the universality of such struggles that is bound to resonate with audiences on even the most basic level. There’s such a human quality embedded within the DNA of the apes’ dialogue that makes them protagonists worth rooting for. Caesar, Blue Eyes, Rocket, Maurice, Cornelius and the rest of the simian cast are so thoroughly anthropomorphized that even in the lack of verbal communication, the fact that they’re primates is all but imperceptible. This is an unparalleled achievement in the history of filmmaking — especially from a writing standpoint — which enables the audience to become legitimately invested in what’s at stake when the fighting breaks out. And this is another area in which the film truly sets itself apart. Though the operative word in the film’s title is “war,” there’s not much physical struggle to speak of. A courageous decision for which the writers should be given proper plaudits. Rather than backsliding into cacophony of gunshots, explosions and screaming apes, the film elects to take a much more introspective look at war – the one raging within Caesar himself as he seeks vengeance upon The Colonel for mercilessly killing and torturing scores of innocent men, women and children belonging to Caesar’s tribe. The entire plot of the piece is brilliantly paced, affording the audience the rare opportunity to become fully immersed in the story before arriving at the climax. This is an emotional film to say the least, and the payoff for unreservedly engaging in Reeves’s entire work is oh so gratifying.

The hallmark of anything involving the folks at Weta is always the visual effects. Ever since their industry-redefining work on Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” anthology, Weta has been at the forefront of pioneering for both practical and digital effects technology. And aside from “Avatar,” there is perhaps no better example of this than the “Planet of the Apes” revival. Working in close collaboration with motion capture performance legend Andy Serkis (whose mocap credits include Gollum, King Kong and Supreme Leader Snoke), the studio has once again permanently altered the landscape of what’s possible in the digital age of filmmaking. Every single detail from the apes’ fur, to their facial wrinkles and scars, to the expressiveness of their eyes and the preservation of the nuance of the actors’ performances is rendered to all out perfection. Oftentimes when computer-generated characters interact with real objects or actors, it’s painfully obvious where the line between reality and fiction lies. Not anymore. Weta’s absolute mastery of the art of digital effects blows the competition out of the water. 2016’s “The Jungle Book” (also a product Weta) pales in comparison to the imagery created for “War for the Planet.” In all weather conditions, in all lighting environments, the primates are flawlessly rendered until they are literally unrecognizable as virtual creations. Combine such postproduction perfectionism with the minds of seasoned veteran Serkis, “10 Cloverfield Lane” mastermind Matt Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin and the result is a holy grail of technical exactitude typically associated with the likes of Christopher Nolan. The only major setback for the movie is Michael Giacchino’s score, which occasionally clashes tonally with what’s happening on the screen and is unusually forgettable for the man responsible for compositions like “Star Trek” (2009), “Inside Out” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Overall, a few missteps with the music aren’t problematic enough to compromise the integrity of the film, and there should be nothing taken away from Reeves or his crew as they exit the “Apes” franchise on one of the highest notes of 2017 so far.

Final Take: It’s refreshingly difficult to find almost anything to criticize in “War for the Planet of the Apes.” There are a few times certain events feel rushed and there might be one plot hole to speak of, but that’s really about it. Matt Reeves did an incredible job rounding out the “Apes” trilogy, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been tracking his career since “Cloverfield.” It also needs to be said that if Andy Serkis isn’t finally nominated for an Oscar for his work as Caesar, there is no justice in the world. He brings such gravitas to the role and gets almost no recognition for it. And that needs to change starting this year. If you’re a fan of the franchise already, buy your tickets now. You absolutely will not be disappointed. If you’re new to it and are considering checking it out, you honestly don’t have to see the first two in this trilogy to keep up — though I do recommend a viewing ahead of time because those movies are also fantastic. “War for the Planet” currently stands at number two on my list for the top movies of the year, and I suspect it will remain a top five candidate for some time. It's a truly arresting film. You don’t want to miss it.

Parental Guide: Since the apes have a very primal vocabulary when speaking English and an even more limited one when engaging in sign language, the movie has next to no profanity. And even though the plot centers around a war between mankind and the film’s titular apes, the violence isn’t prevalent and isn’t gory when the battles eventually do break out. It should be perfectly safe for a family night out as long as your kids can handle some basic thematic elements (which you can observe in the trailer here).

Recommended Format: Don’t spend the money for a 3D showing unless you’re dying to see it on opening weekend and all other showings in your area are sold out in advance. The film was shot on Arri’s large format cameras (why it didn’t get an IMAX release is bewildering to me), but it wasn’t originally intended for stereoscopic exhibition. Standard 2D will get the job done. Save that extra cost and put it towards some popcorn or other concessions. You’re probably going to enjoy having that around when the tension starts to build.

The Verdict: 9/10

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